'The two were not threatening anyone. So why shoot them?'

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The Independent Online

It was supposed to be a day of celebration for Azhar Fawzi Hashem and his family - the wedding day of a close family friend. It ended with Mr Hashem arriving dead at a hospital after being fatally wounded, his family allege, by over-zealous British troops.

It was supposed to be a day of celebration for Azhar Fawzi Hashem and his family - the wedding day of a close family friend. It ended with Mr Hashem arriving dead at a hospital after being fatally wounded, his family allege, by over-zealous British troops.

It was 15 August 2003 and the wedding party was milling around outside the Al-Arosa photographers studio in a suburb of Basra, when a tussle broke out between some guests and two other wedding parties waiting outside the popular studio.

A 25-year-old tailor, Mr Hashem was carrying a pistol to protect himself and his new car - a valuable possession at real risk of being stolen by local bandits. He, like several other bystanders, fired in the air to disperse the crowd, just as a British army patrol came past.

"The soldiers arrived, saw the firing and then they started shooting themselves," Mr Hashem's brother Osama, 22, told The Independent on Sunday last week. "Azhar was killed and a young woman was hurt. My brother was not threatening anyone and neither was that woman. Why shoot them?"

Perhaps the soldiers' reaction was understandable. Basra, like much of Iraq, was still volatile. But, claim the Hashem family, what happened next was inexcusable. According to their account, British soldiers clearly breached the Army's strict rules on caring for wounded civilians and detainees.

In a witness statement for a British lawyer, Phil Shiner, the family accuse the troops of ignoring their pleas to take him to hospital. Another brother, Mohanned Fawzi Hashim, said: "A British soldier approached Ezhar after he had been shot, placed the gun at his head, opened wide his legs, and searched him. A relative asked the soldiers for help as Ezhar was bleeding but they walked away."

Their controversial claims are among about 40 cases of alleged abuses involving British troops taken up by Mr Shiner's firm, Public Interest Lawyers. Scores of other cases have now been investigated by the Royal Military Police, raising substantial and growing doubts about the conduct of British forces in Iraq.

The controversy hit the headlines last week after the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, announced that seven paratroopers faced murder and violent disorder charges over the death of Nadhem Abdullah at a checkpoint on 11 May 2003.

Another highly damaging court martial is already under way in Osnabruck, Germany, where four members of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are on trial over the alleged abuse of Iraqi looters in May 2003. Made infamous by the release of 22 damning photographs of the abuse taking place, one of the accused, Lance Corporal Darren Larking, 30, has already pleaded guilty to assault. The trial is expected to last until mid-February.

Meanwhile a further 15 prosecutions are under way or close to completion. And the Ministry of Defence admits that at least seven of those cases - involving up to 20 individual soldiers - are identifiable as cases involving "deliberate" abuse.

The most troubling case of all involves the alleged torture and murder of the hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, and the alleged torture and abuse of up to seven of his co-workers and senior hotel staff, all captured in a British army raid to find a suspected weapons cache.

That case is very close to coming to court, nearly 18 months after Mr Mousa's death. It is now being intently scrutinised by Lord Goldsmith's senior staff, in part because of a damning judgment by the High Court in December. The court ruled the Government had breached the Human Rights Act by failing to investigate Mr Mousa's death effectively and to bring prosecutions quickly.

Last week, two of the arrested men, Kifah Taha al-Mutari and Jawad Kadhim Chamil, recounted how they were allegedly beaten while being hooded, doused in ice-cold water and subjected to ritualistic humiliation. His medical documents show Mr Taha came very close to death as a result of a sustained beating which left him with "renal failure ... and severe bruising".

Mr Chamil, a 46-year-old security guard at the hotel, claims their abuse began after the army's chief suspect, the hotel's co-owner Haitham Vaha, escaped. After being kicked and punched, all eight men, including Baha Mousa, were then taken to the army's headquarters in Basra.

Mr Taha, who attended the High Court hearing into Mr Mousa's death, said December's court judgment had given some comfort. However, he claims, Iraqis know of many other cases - cases like that of Ezhar Fawzi Hashem - that have drifted out of sight or remain uninvestigated by the British authorities. The most the Hashem family have had, they say, is an offer of compensation that they rejected out of pride. In dozens of other cases, the MoD insists the Army acted legally or that no proof was found of a crime. This, the MoD argues, disproves allegations of systematic wrongdoing by the British in Iraq.

ARMED FORCES ON TRIAL

Five trials for alleged abuse, negligence or murder are now under way or complete. They involve:

* Seven members of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment accused of murdering Nadhem Abdullah on 11 May 2003.

* Three soldiers of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers are now in a court martial in Germany.

* Private Alexander Johnston, of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, last week admitted negligent discharge of his gun. He was on guard duty in Uzayr when a boy of 13 was shot on 2 August 2003.

* Trooper Kevin Williams, 21, of the 2nd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment is charged with murdering Hassan Said in Ad-Dayr. Another 13 cases are with the Army Legal Service, the RAF Legal Service, the Army Prosecuting Authority or Crown Prosecution Service. They include:

* The alleged death in custody of the hotel receptionist Baha Mousa and the abuse of up to seven other men, arrested in a raid carried out by the Queen's Lancashire Regiment in September 2003.